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'Music Is Better Than People': A Conversation With Unknown Mortal Orchestra

We Talk ‘Sex & Food’ With The New Zealand Rock Band

On April 12, 2018

Ruban Nielson believes you really know who he is. The secrets to his personality are all in his music, he says. Over the course of four albums as the songwriter and lyricist of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, including this year’s Sex & Food, he’s provided transparency into his life, his confusion, his vulnerabilities, all without a timestamp. Though songs like “American Guilt” and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” point to the influence of current affairs, music is bigger than political tropes, he says. “I think of music as being a bit more sacred than other things in my life,” Nielson said. “I think of politics as being really small compared to music. Not that music fixes anything, it doesn’t change anything, but when an artist makes something and it’s good, it survives. Ideologies come and go and people still listen to Mozart and Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix. Music is not caught up in these shifts.”

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Following 2015’s Multi-Love, a glossy and funk-infused collection of songs, Sex & Food plays as a sprawling psychedelic dream rife with riffs that just as quickly morph into a funky disco, in which Nielson utilizes an expansive sonic palate from warbly keys to delicate finger picked acoustic guitar. The record’s first half is largely dominated by guitars, striking and mystifying, the second half grounded by groove. “Not In Love We’re Just High” feels like a 21st Century Stevie Wonder hit that explodes into psych daydream; album closer “If You’re Going To Break Yourself” leans Pink Floyd-esque.

Though there are glimmers of Multi-Love’s past, like the danceable “Hunnybee” and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays,” Sex & Food calls back to the arrangements — the mirage of vocals in a guitar-laden landscape, rousing guitar lines — that garnered the attention of early aughts bloggers and Bandcamp listeners alike, but with more bombast. Just as sex and food represent the pinnacles of pleasure, so too do the songs on Sex & Food — and embody the best of UMO’s back catalogue.

VMP: It seems like the narrative of Multi-Love left a lot of doors open for your life. I read on Pitchfork that you planned on going to Hawaii. Have any of those desires changed?

Ruban Nielson: I went to Hawaii and it ended up turning into a holiday. It wasn’t very creative for me. It probably would be under certain circumstances. I work better under tension. The original idea was to go to Hawaii and spend time with my family and make a record around that part of my identity but it just wasn’t the time to do that. I think I read that [interview] when it came out and I haven’t gone back to it. [Laughs] It’s a little bit hard to read that thing — it’s quite serious and heavy. It doesn't feel like something I would like to reread. It definitely leans on the darker side of things and the point of what I’m doing is to have this dichotomy between dark things and really fun kind of dumb things.

At least on this album, you get that feeling from song to song. You’ve got something like “Hunnybee” which is incredibly dancy, to “American Guilt” which is very guitar heavy and evokes this strong image.

It’s strange, I thought I would have to explain that song more in interviews. I felt I did have to explain it when I was in Europe because I think people thought “Oh yeah it’s this critique of America.” It’s not at all, in my mind at least. What the song’s supposed to be about is this feeling, that isn’t new, but as I’m here longer and I understand America and I feel myself becoming more American. I don't really feel entitled to say I’m American. The longer I’m here, the more I understand it and the more I love it in a way that comes from understanding it and feeling more like it’s part of my identity. It also comes with this guilt. When I talk to American people about it they’re like “Yeah, yeah I know what that song’s about,” which is cool. I think people tend to get the songs more than I think they’re going to.

Sometimes you get too close to things and think they’re a little more esoteric.

I always think I shouldn’t filter things because of that reason. This self-censorship is the one that we have to worry about in our culture. In America, supposedly, we can say whatever we want. At the same time, there’s more pressure from peer groups or internally to filter it out. When I’m writing, I just try to not understand what I’m really talking about when I’m writing the song and I’ll figure it out later. It always seems to be better. If I start thinking “I hope people don’t think I’m being critical. I hope Americans don’t get offended that I’m singing this song,” then I’ll talk myself out of doing things. So I try to be as stupid as possible, as dumb as possible when I’m writing so I can say things that are more true. What I find usually is none of those things were a problem. My Twitter, on the other hand, my sense of humor online is much more misunderstood so I’ve been dealing with that more.

Twitter has created this ecosystem where either people will get it or people won’t.

There was a sweet spot where everybody on there knew that it was stupid. It became a very funny platform. Now it’s not very funny at all. It’s become much more combative. When I tweet things, it’s just a little bit too deadpan for the format these days. I remember at one point when I was writing the last record, I realized my lyrics needed to be more like my Twitter. Sometimes I tweet something and I think “Oh, that’s an original thought” and I think I should put that in a song instead.

Just as sex and food represent the pinnacles of pleasure, so too do the songs on 'Sex & Food' — and embody the best of UMO’s back catalogue.

Have you ever?

Oh, yeah. Multi-Love is full of things that I initially thought “I’ll tweet this line, this is funny.” If it’s a sentence I think holds together well, I’ll tweet it. If they don’t like it, they’ll unfollow me. These days, everything’s got to mean something, and it’s got to mean something very specific. So I have to be careful that these things are constructed a little more carefully than they used to. The internet’s such a political place now. It used to be a bit more chaotic neutral.

Like you said, everyone is looking for meaning in things now whereas you could maybe be stupid two years ago. As someone who creates things for the public to consume, does this affect your mindset when you’re writing?

I make music the same way that I always have. Sometimes I get asked if this is a political album — well, they all are and they all aren’t. If I released the second album now, the lyrics that I wrote back then still do the same thing. I wrote a song “No Need For A Leader,” if I ever put that on this record, people would think it was about the president. It’s not really about that, it’s just feelings that I have. They’re not really changing, but the world is changing. I changed the way that I do Twitter, but I don’t change the way I make music.

Do you ever look back on your songs and are reminded of the time when you wrote it?

I wrote the song “No Need For A Leader” during Obama’s first term and it wasn’t about that government. I remember specifically not thinking about politics. I was just thinking about the idea that humans constantly arrange themselves in a way that they’re waiting for someone to lead them somewhere.

I don’t know how lions pick their leaders, but humans have an extremely organized effort.

It’s a constantly oscillating thing. It works at a certain time with certain contexts, and then it doesn’t for others. Every country has a leader, it’s always the case. I just think about these things. I don’t have an opinion — I hate opinions. I just like the questions, really.

Why do you hate opinions?

Once you have an opinion, by its nature, it means that you have to defend that opinion even if somebody proves you wrong or teaches you a new piece of information. There’s this pressure to not evolve with new information. This idea of people taking stands on things, it makes it harder for us to compromise and figure out ways to get on with society. The whole world is sort of getting like this, separating like oil and water in these two opposing camps. It doesn't seem conducive to survival or figuring out problems.

It’s all devolving into one large Twitter feed.

[Laughs] Twitter is just one large example of what the world is like nowadays.

Did you read the Julian Casablancas interview with Vulture? He has so many opinions and you’re saying you’re the opposite.

Men get older and they think they know everything. It’s tiresome. It’s kind of a disappointing thing to watch people give into their process in general. It’s not just a male thing. People get older and they start to think that they know everything. That doesn’t sound like much fun to me, to be honest. [Laughs]

There’s this correlation between being older and wiser and imparting that wisdom on others.

I look at people who are older than me a lot, especially artists, because I’m getting to this age where “What do I do now?” The music industry seems to be this place where they’re signing supermodels who can sing a few notes and I think “What am I doing here? Am I supposed to be doing this?” I think of the artists who are making really good work, looking for a role model, I suppose. But I don’t look at their opinions. I look at the way that they live and act and the music they make. Do I want to be like that person? Do I want to think like that person thinks? I hate that stuff.

A person can write a song and it can be a complete, abstract thing without ideologies.

I know when I’m making music, it’s not my ego that’s making the music. I have a friend who constantly is discovering something “problematic” about some artist that they like and they’ll be like, “I can’t listen to that music” or “I don’t want to watch this movie anymore.” It’s like, if somebody makes something good, it doesn’t come from their ego. Sometimes people can make good things on accident. The films don’t care who made them. My songs don’t care I made them. [Say] you’re a feminist filmmaker and you hate Roman Polanski as a human but you love his films. So remake his film. Just remake it or reimagine it. Just pillage it like a pirate. I don’t understand why people don’t do that more often.

This is a conversation that’s been happening a lot lately. But your mindset seems to be taking a different approach.

Rather than “I feel guilty about being influenced by this artist now” why not think of it like “Fuck you, old man. Your shit’s mine now. This belongs to us now. You’ve lost your privileges.” Also, people hang around for 80 years or something. They get crazy. They change their political stripes three or four times. Who cares? If the art’s good then all it’s there to do is either to be enjoyed or to inspire you to make something new.

The music industry seems to be this place where they’re signing supermodels who can sing a few notes and I think 'What am I doing here? Am I supposed to be doing this?'

Do you hope the people who listen to your music separate you as a person from the music that they’re listening to?

I’m so aware of that. I have some responsibility that I realized over the last couple of years. I thought I really need to be the person that people think I am because of this stuff. Recently I was really disappointed because John Lydon seemed to bum me out. Public Image Ltd is such an important band for me but it really didn’t ruin the music for me. What is, it 40 years between The Flowers of Romance coming out and now? If your cells change every seven years — I don’t know if that’s true — then that’s five times. He’s not really necessarily the same person so it doesn’t really matter. Unless he put out an album last year and then disappointed me politically, then I don’t think there’s any real problem there. But at the same time, I think if somebody really loves my music, I don’t want to let them down because I know what that feels like. At the end of the day, music is better than people.

It seems stressful to uphold who people think you are.

That’s impossible if you construct your music in a way that’s a lie. The real challenge is to make music that explains who you are, then you don’t have to fake it. I think at this point, there’s four records that if you listen to them, as far as I can see, you know me. You’ll know who I am if you really know them.

Profile Picture of Allie Volpe
Allie Volpe

Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia who shares a birthday with Beyonce. She enjoys sad music, desserts and long distance running.

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